Mother’s Day always offers us a good opportunity to consider cultural and personal histories of motherhood: its trials and blessings, lessons and victories. For Smith College president Kathleen McCartney, however, Mother’s Day offers a chance to rethink the entire meaning and methodology of motherhood—as she writes for the Boston Globe,
Motherhood is a cultural invention. It reflects a belief adopted by society that is passed down from one generation to the next. In US culture, we hold to the idea that young children are better off when cared for exclusively by their mothers. Mothers are bombarded by this message in the media, especially in programming directed to them.
In many past societies, McCartney says, childcare was driven by economic considerations: “In foraging societies, mothers stay in close proximity with their babies, while in agricultural societies mothers share child-rearing responsibilities with those less able to be productive in the fields, like grandmothers and young girls.”
Interestingly, McCartney spends the last portion of her column arguing for longer maternity leave—which, while not necessarily contradicting her claim that childcare is the best method for modern mothers, doesn’t automatically support that claim, either. “Numerous analyses have demonstrated the benefits of parental leave policies to workers and employers,” she writes. “Parents have time to bond with their children; health care costs go down; and fewer families are pushed to rely on public assistance.”
I agree wholeheartedly with McCartney that a good parental leave policy is incredibly beneficial to both parents and child, ensuring that they have a time of rest and bonding before career responsibilities start up again. But I disagree with her that motherhood—which, in her article, seems to specifically denote stay-at-home mothering—is a “social construct.” No matter the time or place, women have felt a strong allegiance to and responsibility for their young. This is not merely a cultural facade: it’s rooted in a woman’s very nature—even in her brain.
Adrienne LaFrance illustrated this in an article for The Atlantic in January. When women become mothers, they undergo considerable neurological changes: “Gray matter becomes more concentrated. Activity increases in regions that control empathy, anxiety, and social interaction. On the most basic level, these changes … help attract a new mother to her baby.”
Attraction almost seems to mild a word, however, to describe the changes in a mother’s brain as she grows close to her child:
Just by staring at her baby, the reward centers of a mother’s brain will light up, scientists have found in several studies. This maternal brain circuitry influences the syrupy way a mother speaks to her baby, how attentive she is, even the affection she feels for her baby. … Oxytocin also increases as women look at their babies, or hear their babies’ coos and cries, or snuggle with their babies. An increase in oxytocin during breastfeeding may help explain why researchers have found that breastfeeding mothers are more sensitive to the sound of their babies’ cries than non-breastfeeding mothers.
… What scientists do know, Feldman says, is that becoming a parent looks—at least in the brain—a lot like falling in love. Which helps explain how many new parents describe feeling when they meet their newborns. At the brain level, the networks that become especially sensitized are those that involve vigilance and social salience—the amygdala—as well as dopamine networks that incentivize prioritizing the infant. “In our research, we find that periods of social bonding involve change in the same ‘affiliative’ circuits,” Feldman said. “We showed that during the first months of ‘falling in love’ some similar changes occur between romantic partners.”
Becoming a mother is like falling in love, LaFrance writes. It initiates an incredible transformation of a woman’s brain, triggering emotions and inclinations that she did not feel before—like opening up a new room in her mind.
This is why, I think, so many mothers don’t just choose to return to their life pre-baby. They have undergone a series of neurological, emotional, and personal shifts. They’ve fallen in love a second time, and find themselves tied, body and soul, to a new human being in their life.
It seems incredibly normal, in response to such changes, to want to be close to one’s child—to want to observe his or her primary years of development, first moments of walking and talking, learning colors and letters and sounds. It makes perfect sense that a mother would want to remain as invested in this new life as possible: for just as falling in love calls us beyond ourselves, calls us to seek the good of another before our own wishes and wants, so motherhood may call us to abandon our preconceived notions of life and ambition, in order to care for a new responsibility, a new love.
Of course, this isn’t the only path open to mothers. But it needn’t be a condemned and despised path, either—one viewed as personally constraining or socially enforced.
When I asked my mother whether it was difficult for her to give up her career ambitions to be a stay-at-home mom, she was surprised. She said it was never even a question for her, never gave her a moment’s doubt. She wanted to stay at home, and never regretted her decision.
Of course not every mother will feel this way—many don’t. And choosing to work a full-time job does not constitute a desertion of one’s motherly responsibilities: indeed, a mom who works from home can have a substantially better relationship with her children than one who stays at home. It all depends on the mother: how (and whether) she invests in her children, how she demonstrated her affection.
But I cannot thank my mother enough for her faithful investment in my life: for the things she gave up, in order to be close to my siblings and me. She taught me that motherhood needn’t just be a chore, an infringement on career ambitions and goals: it is also a priceless gift, an opportunity to invest in a unique human life. Regardless of the motherhood path one chooses, one thing is for sure: no woman who chooses to become a mother will ever be the same.